From respected Fire Captain to serial arsonist – John Orr committed up to 2,000 arson attacks, killing four people and causing millions of dollars worth of property damage
Fire Chief John Orr had an uncanny ability to sniff out the source of almost any fire, because he was the one starting them
a unique MO... led observers to dub the unknown arsonist ‘ The Frito Bandito’ or ‘ The
John Orr didn’t set out to be a fire chief. His ambition was to be a police officer working for the LAPD, at that time the most prestigious force in the USA. His application was rejected, however, following psychological testing. Undeterred, Orr became a firefighter and satisfied his urge to fight crime by chasing down shoplifters and burglars in his fire truck. Although this made him something of a laughing stock among his colleagues, nobody could deny that he was an excellent fire investigator. He appeared to have a sixth sense where arson was concerned and had an uncanny ability for solving intractable cases. Usually the first on the scene, Orr could identify a fire’s point of origin and discover incendiary devices when other investigators were scratching their heads. So what was his secret?
‘ Hotter than
His ‘ secret’ was darker and more extraordinary than anyone could have imagined: Orr was a pyromaniac, addicted to the sexual frisson and feelings of power the blazes gave him.
His expert knowledge meant that he could set devastating fires, both indoors and outside, exploiting environmental conditions and the volatility of the materials to achieve maximum damage.
As a highly trained professional, Orr knew that certain commonly found products could be extremely dangerous if ignited. This helped him to develop a unique incendiary device and MO, which would lead observers to dub the unknown arsonist ‘ The Frito Bandito’ and ‘ The Pillow Pyro’. Unlike other arsonists, who typically prefer to set fires under cover of darkness when no one else is around, Orr’s crimes took place in retail outlets during business hours. He favoured grocery stores, hardware stores and fabric outlets as places with high footfall and a rich repository of flammable materials. His earliest known crimes involved the ignition of bags of crisps: the high oil content in the snacks and their packaging meant that they could be relied upon to provide an impressive blaze. Such an innocuous item also carried the element of surprise – few people would expect a rack of crisps to burst into flames during a busy afternoon’s trading. Orr would later describe such items as “sack[ s] of solid fuel”. Similarly, Orr enjoyed burning items containing polyurethane, a highly combustible plastic material used in cushions, mattresses and other everyday items. It burns with unparalleled ferocity, emitting an eerie hissing noise and producing green- tinged flames.
Orr was experienced enough to know that an arsonist cannot just hold a lighter to such items: the resulting blaze would take hold too quickly, leaving the perpetrator in danger of discovery or even injury. So he developed an ingenious time- delay device that would allow him to set his fires and get to safety, or on to the next location on his hit- list. Orr’s device consisted of a lit cigarette attached by a rubber band to three matches and a piece of paper. The smouldering cigarette would slowly burn down, before igniting the matches that would set fire to the paper. The paper would then provide a strong enough flame for the crisps or polyfoam products to ignite.
Orr’s skills were put to terrible use on the evening of 10 October 1984, when he set fire to Ole’s Home Center on Fair Oaks Avenue in South Pasadena, California. The 1,700- square- metre building contained a housewares department, stuffed with just the kind of materials that
Orr favoured. Minutes after a column of thick, dark smoke was seen rising from a display rack towards the ceiling, an inferno erupted that devoured the store. As the fire broke out close to closing time, there were mercifully few people inside and most of them got out with their lives. Anthony Colantuano, who worked in the electrical department, later described being blasted through the doors with colleagues and customers when the room behind him exploded. He was lucky to survive the ‘ flashover’, that horrifying moment when everything in the vicinity of the source of the fire heats to ignition point and simultaneously bursts into flame. At this point in a blaze, the carbon that is smoke burns hotter than 500 degrees Celsius and everything present is incinerated.
Tragically, when the flashover occurred at Ole’s, four people were still making their way out of the store. Employees Carolyn Kraus, 26, and Jimmy Cetina, 17, were killed, as were Ada Deal, 50, and her two- year- old grandson, Matthew Troidl. The bodies of all four victims were found just a few metres from the exit.
Investigators attempting to determine the source of the fire were faced with a mammoth task. Yet after spending just
90 minutes at the scene, the lead investigator, Sergeant Jack Palmer, declared that the cause of the fire was probably an electrical fault in the ceiling. Had he known that there had been two other fires in local retail outlets that day, both started deliberately and involving crisps, he may have looked at the fire at Ole’s more critically. And John Orr, as the investigator called in to examine the scene of the earlier blaze at Albertson’s Market, would have been well- placed to advise him that there had been two other arsons that afternoon, particularly as he was also on- site at Ole’s, taking photographs of the conflagration. But tipping Palmer off would have spoiled Orr’s fun.
In addition to the feeling of control that fire- setting gave him, Orr enjoyed having superior knowledge to other investigators. He had gained a reputation for being the best fire sleuth in the area, with an instinctive feel for how fires would behave, how they had started and how best to suppress them. In an interview with Newsweek in 2007,
Tom Propst, a fire- prevention inspector with Glendale
Fire Department in the early 1990s, described Orr as “miraculously fast at finding the causes of fires. He could dig through the ashes, narrow it down and we’d be, like, ‘ Man, you’re good.’” Orr wanted to be the best – and he was – but he also wanted to be given his due, indirectly, for the fires that he caused. When Sergeant Palmer declared that the fire at Ole’s was accidental in origin, Orr was incensed. He contacted Dennis Foote, another local arson investigator, and requested permission to assist with the Ole’s inquiry. Orr also asked for access to Foote’s ‘ Potato Chip File’, a dossier of information on fires involving crisps or polyfoam products that dated back four years. A few days after these requests were granted, a suspicious polyfoam fire broke out at another local store. It was enough to make Foote want to examine the scene at Ole’s again, to determine whether polyfoam products had been a factor there. Unfortunately, he was too late: a clean- up operation was already underway, and no evidence remained there.
Undeterred, Orr continued to raise questions about the fire at Ole’s, telling Karen Kraus, the sister- in- law of Carolyn Kraus who perished in the blaze, that the fire was unlikely to have been accidental. He also told her that investigators should have been present at the autopsies of the victims, in order to instruct the pathologist to look for particles of polypropylene in their lungs or tracheas. Orr’s highly unconventional behaviour would later be used against him during his trial for murder.
Orr’s insatiable appetite for arson could not be controlled. Over the next seven years, he set a staggering number of fires in retail stores and on hillsides across a large area. Incidents were clustered around conferences addressing the subject of arson. Seven incidents took place in a four- day period in January 1987, at the time of the California Conference of Arson Investigators in Fresno. And a similar pattern emerged in 1989, when there were six arsons over three days coinciding with the Symposium IV Arson Conference in Pacific Grove.
Brush fires were also at their peak during this period, with the College Hills fire in 1990 being officially recognised as the worst in history. By the time that blaze had been extinguished, it had destroyed 46 homes, damaged 20 others and caused more than $ 50 million worth of damage.
13 points of
The disparate nature of Orr’s crimes and the fact that they were spread over a large geographical area meant that, initially, investigators did not realise that one man was responsible for the crisp fires, polyfoam fires and brush fires plaguing the region. The situation was exacerbated by the fragmented nature of policing in the United States: each force jealously guarded the secrets of its investigations, and information was not routinely shared. To address this, in April 1991 a 20- strong ‘ Pillow Pyro Task Force’ was set up and set about liaising with police departments across California on crimes that fitted the MO of the pyromaniac.
Among the evidence collected was a scorched sheet of lined yellow paper, recovered from a fire in a display of dried flowers at the CraftMart store in Bakersfield, in 1987. Captain Marvin G. Casey of Bakersfield Fire Department, the investigator assigned to the blaze in 1987, had identified that it formed part of an incendiary device composed of a cigarette and three matches. Casey was kept busy that day, as just 30 minutes after flames erupted at CraftMart, a similar fire broke out at Hancock Fabrics, three kilometres away. The remnants of a similar device were found. The following day
By the time that blaze had been extinguished, it had destroyed 46 homes, damaged 20 others and caused $ 50 million worth of damage
Casey met with investigators from Fresno, who described comparable fires that had occurred in Fresno and Tulare. Aware that he may be dealing with a serial arsonist, Casey sent the evidence for processing by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Ninhydrin solution applied to the paper produced an excellent fingerprint containing at least 13 points of identification ( only seven are needed for a print to be admissible as evidence). The print found no matches in state or national databases in 1987, but when it was checked again by the task force in 1991 it was found to be a match for John Orr. Ironically, he was identified this time because the check was carried out by the LA Sheriff ’s Department, whose database included fingerprints not only of criminals, but also every police officer in the state and everybody who had ever applied for a police job. The LAPD, which 20 years earlier had crushed Orr’s dreams of becoming a police officer, would soon be instrumental in ending his career as both a fire captain and an arsonist.
Investigators initially suspected that Orr’s print had transferred to the evidence accidentally, but with the fire scene in Bakersfield some 160 kilometres away from his base in Glendale, this seemed unlikely. The task force was convinced it had its man. Surveillance operations at a training event in San Luis Obispo in April 1991 and the California Conference of Arson Investigators in Fresno in July and August 1991 failed when Orr spotted a tracking device on his vehicle and realised he was being watched.
Ultimately, Orr was finally snared by his staggering grandiosity. The task force became aware that Orr had written a novel about a fire investigator and serial arsonist and that he was trying to get it published. The detailed manuscript was closely based on his own acts of arson, with incidents, including the fire at Ole’s, only thinly disguised. The final nail in Orr’s coffin came on 4 December 1991, when arresting officers discovered the components of his signature incendiary device in a bag in his car.
At Orr’s trials in 1992 and 1998, he was found guilty of 29 counts of arson and was also given four consecutive life sentences for the Ole’s fire. During his 1998 trial, Dr. Ronald Markman, a forensic psychiatrist, appeared for the defence, and characterised Orr as a pyromaniac suffering from an obsessive- compulsive personality disorder. He argued that Orr was compelled to set fires in order to dissipate the extreme anxiety caused by his obsessive compulsions, and that Orr’s inability to admit culpability is a feature of his psychological conditions. Dr. Markman gave evidence that admitting guilt would have been “devastating” to
Orr: “It would destroy the orderliness of his life. It would demonstrate to him that he’s been a failure all of his life.”
Orr is serving life without the possibility of parole at California State Prison, Centinela. He continues to protest his innocence, claiming his conviction is the result of a government conspiracy.
top Captain John Orr at work as an arson investigator. He was well respected in his field, delivering training to other firefighters and publishing articles in industry journalsabove Orr investigating a brush fire, as other officers look on. He was known for his uncanny ability to predict and solve arson cases
A fingerprint onthis piece of paper, f ound a t thescene of one of the fires, rev ealed13 points of identification. Thepa per f ormed part of Orr’ s ‘ signa ture’incendiar y device top John Orr, in the courtroom of the Criminal Courts building in Los Angeles, just after being found guilty of setting the blaze at Ole’s Home Center that killed four people